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The Mesoamerican Ballgame Ulama


Ulama. The indigenous American game resembled volleyball, with opposing teams stationed opposite one another on a capital I shaped court.

Ulama is a fast-paced, often brutal Mesoamerican ballgame that was widely played from ancient times until the Spanish conquest in the 16th century. Different regions, empires and eras gave the game different rules and names (for example Tlachtli). However in almost all versions two opposing teams played on opposite sides of a stone playing court. Players used hips, heads, legs and elbows to strike a rubber ball and keep it from touching the ground.

The origins of the game remain shrouded in legend. One Mayan myth recounts the gripping tale of archetypical hero-twins challenged to play the game by the god of death. The twins emerged from the match victorious and consequently became the sun and the moon. Archeological studies suggest that the Olmecs may have started playing the rubber ball game over 3,000 years ago. The name Olmec in fact means “the people who use rubber”. For the next two and a half millennium, the sport would have deep meaning in cultures throughout pre-Columbian Mexico. Aztecs, Mayans, Mixtecs and Zapotecs all played and watched the ball game.

The game’s influence impacted life in ways that extended far beyond the pride, passion and casual enjoyment of today’s sporting events. The motion of the ball predicted the movement of the sun, the game may have served as an alternative to war, and players often faced the grim post game prospect of being ritually sacrificed. Game action also reached intensity levels unimaginable by today’s ballgame standards. Serious injury was common. Players would dive onto the stone court to keep the ball in play and end the game bloodied and bruised. The high-speed movement of the weighty flying ball could hit players and even cause deadly blunt trauma to unprotected body zones. In some cultures fans bet on games at incredibly high stakes. Wagers included homes, slaves, children and even one’s own freedom.

The indigenous American game resembled volleyball, with opposing teams stationed opposite one another on a capital I shaped court. If the ball bounced more than once on your team’s side, then you lost a point. Most later varieties of the game also included a basketball style hoop turned vertical and placed on both sides of the court. Rules forbade the use of hands, which made passing the ball through the hoops challenging. The team that scored through the hoop won the game.

Early Spanish priests and conquistadors recorded their impressions of the game. The rubber balls fascinated them, as they had never before seen the bouncy material. They soon prohibited the ballgame along with its rituals, nearly ending thousands of years of the sport’s tradition. Today, the legacy of the ancient Mesoamerican ballgame is kept alive by small groups of modern Ulama players that continue playing the sport in certain areas of Sinaloa, Mexico and by the archeological artifacts that remain. These include over one thousand stone playing courts found from Nicaragua to as far north as Arizona. The largest known court is in the wonderfully preserved ancient Mayan city grounds at Chichen Itza near Cancun, Mexico. The court here measures 545 feet long and 225 feet wide. Ancient figures of ball players dating back to 1250 have also been discovered at Olmec sites.

For those interested in learning more about the game, the 1986 Roberto Rochin film Ulama, Juego de la Vida y la Muerte offers an in-depth look at the sport.